The Line Between Data and Advocacy: Another Field Report from Houston
On the last day of our data collection in Texas last week, we were eating lunch at a Cajun-Vietnamese restaurant in Port Arthur. The restaurant was once a Burger King, whose sign had been painted over by hand. It was there we could stop to think about our morning with Hilton Kelley. A community advocate, Kelley told us story after story about residents coughing and having trouble breathing while they were trying to evacuate during Hurricane Harvey.
That’s Kelley (left) with me, Michael Armen (our chief science officer), and a film crew. This post won’t do justice to Kelley’s engaging and compelling storytelling, as he told us about people who couldn’t really stop to think about the air they were breathing as they struggled to escape rising floodwaters.
Kelly is working to advocate for the local residents, to make sure they are informed and protected. While my team and I very much want to keep residents safe from potentially harmful air contaminants, our primary role is to identify the risk or potential for harm chemicals in the air. We are not advocates and don’t want to be advocates. We want to help get the best-available information to the right people.
In the poor neighborhoods we visited in Port Arthur, Manchester, and elsewhere, this can be hard to remember. Harvey put many residents at risk from dangers both seen and unseen. Our job is to make the data we collect visible and understandable. That can be a challenge unto itself.
Weathering the challenges
While we were in the Houston area, we were working with several groups. One was the EPA Region 6, which was also measuring ambient air quality using the TAGA (Trace Atmospheric Gas Analyzer) laboratory. Their mandate was to look at the conditions at one point in time to quantify the harm to residents. For example, in Manchester, TAGA measured the air when the wind was blowing the chemicals from the Valero refinery leak away from residents, but the chemicals were still being released.
Our data showed that the wind would sometimes swing back toward the neighborhood at night. We also had several moments where our AROMA sensor measured benzene levels spiking. When we saw these spikes, we would need to quickly finish our analysis and then get to safer ground. But we kept following the invisible plume of benzene, roughly as wide as a city block, to see if it impacted other areas — driving from place to place to get the most accurate readings possible.
We designed our technology with mobility in mind, as chemical detection is often needed in a hurry. Because of the simplicity and robustness of AROMA, we can quickly measure where needed and get laboratory-grade results in minutes.
At times, our equipment was co-located with other sensors from the City of Houston, providing baseline data for comparison. We sent all our data to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which was working throughout the area with the City of Houston and the Air Alliance Houston (AAH) to address multiple environmental events, including flooding toxic waste sites and oil spills.
When we were in Houston, our task was complicated by the fluidity of the situation. Working with EDF and AAH, we were constantly juggling a variety of needs that stretched us thin. We responded to refinery start-up events (a time when large releases often occur), the discovery of new leaks, as well as damage, odor, and emission reports from communities, with the need to carefully monitor, track, and characterize the plumes that we had already found. Even with a mobile analyzer, there was easily enough work for three more teams on the ground spread more broadly across the city.
In talking with press and community members, we dance the line between data providers and advocates. We need to be sure to collect data that identifies risks to the community while making sure that we are taking in the full picture. At the end of the day, it’s safest to say that we are advocates for our data and for using it as much as possible.
We want to provide trusted information that community advocates like Kelley, groups like EDF, and policy-makers like the city of Houston need to keep communities safe. Having the ability to be in the field all week gives me appreciation for the complexity and importance of data sharing and decision-making.
Tony Miller is the CEO and a co-founder of Entanglement Technologies.